An Unspoiled Space: The West in the Eyes of Early 20th-Century Artists
Updated July 22 — At the end of June, the Autry opened its new art installation in the Romance gallery, Art and the 20th Century West, and it includes important works by early 20th-century artists such as Maynard Dixon, Ernest Blumenschein, Oscar Berninghaus, Robert Henri, Frank Applegate and John Sloan. Among the highlights is Dixon’s seminal “Men of the Red Earth.”
The canvases replace historic artifacts belonging to Wild Bill Hickock and Annie Oakley that had long been on display and needed maintenance. The new installation allows the gallery to tell a more unified story of how the West has figured in painting through the past two centuries, said Amy Scott, the Autry’s Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Visual Art.
“What we have is a combination of California and primarily Taos or Santa Fe paintings from the turn of the century,” said. “The idea was to look at these paintings as a group or as a body of work and explore the people and the places that artist were drawn to in the early 20th century shortly after the close of the frontier.”
The works, including some gifts and loans, come from several collections, including the Autry’s own collection, the famed Gardena High School Collection, the collection belonging to James Parks, an Autry past board director, and the collection of Mark and Janet Hilbert, new Autry benefactors.
While the rest of the Romance gallery contains works from the 19th century, such as Thomas Moran’s “Mountain of the Holy Cross,” that showed spectacular natural vistas of the West in a monumental way, the new additions reflect the idea of the West that artists pursued precisely at the close of the Western frontier, Scott said. To them, places like Northern New Mexico and Southern California — the two geographic areas explored by the exhibit — represented unspoiled, rural places where people, in particular Indigenous people, lived spiritual, highly artistic, and most of all, authentic lives.
“This is about how artists are orienting themselves within a changing West, settling into certain communities, working with the landscape and its native, sometimes its Hispanic, residents to develop visual ideas about place,” Scott said. “Not only did they settle there permanently, but often they brought their families, they raised their kids there, they developed local artists’ organizations to exhibit and promote their work. So they’re really embedded within these communities in a directed and organized way.”
As these painters looked to express their vision amid the ferment of the times — this was the time of World War I, the Roaring 20s and then the Depression — they moved out West, or at least spent significant periods here, in search of a more “authentic experience.” The result was colorful canvases that used the blocky, pared-down visuals of modernism, cubism, surrealism, and impressionism, but applied to the austere landscapes and the indigenous people of the West, like the Navajo (Diné) and the Hopi.
“It was a collaborative endeavor, and that’s one of the things this gallery is trying to show,” Scott said. “There’s a collaborative spirit that goes into developing and promoting images of place. Artists need to be around other artists.”
Scott said that — in contrast with the West that earlier artists had promoted of a monumental, iconic, often unpopulated landscape like the Rockies or Yosemite, painted in soft tones from afar — these artists painted a more intimate, sometimes starker West, where locations were often identifiable and people once again were important components of the scene, even if they were not always individualized. These were scenes — of a city plaza, of the docks at San Pedro, of a bonfire picnic in the country — that a person really might encounter if they traveled to the West. This is not to say they were workaday.
“In the twentieth century, part of the allure of places like Santa Fe and Taos, or Los Angeles and La Jolla, is the fact that they seem to be separate or operate differently from the modern, industrial centers of New York and D.C. and Philadelphia, which sort of form the bedrock of American modernism,” Scott said. “Many of the artists, particularly those who settle in Taos in the early twentieth century, like Blumenschein, are in search of a distinctly American art and distinctly American subjects by which to distinguish their work from the more Europeanized abstraction that is coming out of the East Coast.”
Of course, authenticity is a loaded concept. The artists sought honest representations of American life, and they believed they found them in images of Indigenous people and Southwest desert landscapes.
But some might argue that is still a view from the outside, because the Indigenous people in the paintings were still merely subjects, not necessarily collaborators in the forging of their images. This even though the artists considered the Pueblo Indians they were painting highly artistic, integrating art into their everyday objects and leading lives that had been essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.
“Not only are the Pueblos considered to be inherently creative and artistically gifted people,” Scott said, “but they are one of the few groups of Native people who are seen to be — and of course this is all the perception of Anglo and European artists coming from the East Coast — they’re perceived to be living in manners that are relatively straightforward and consistent with the way they’ve always done. They are not tainted or corrupted too much.”
Eventually, even maverick artists like Blumenschein and Sloan would themselves become the establishment, and they would inspire a reaction in another direction from their successors in the 1940s and 1950s, like Georgia O’Keefe. But at least at the dawn of the century, they and their colleagues formed part of an effort — cyclical in art — to both appropriate new influences and return to “genuine” images and concepts.
“The longing to experience the West as it truly is and as it truly was is part of what (was) pushing these artists into these places,” Scott said. “It’s part of a longing for a more straightforward, what they considered to be more honest representation of American landscapes and American life.”